However, I do not hold any illusions that these men and women are as good as they once were, or that their abilities and potentials are not in decline as mine are. Their associations may continue to award them higher and higher dan ranks in appreciation of their continued service, example, leadership, and contribution, but they know the same thing about themselves that I know about myself: We are going downhill.
Karate players, seeing these higher ranks awarded to the senior instructors, who are men of talent, to be sure, confuse holding on to talent with having increasing levels of it. Just like in any other sport, karate players peak in their twenties, perhaps in their thirties, and then it is all downhill.
But the aging master of karate, with deep lines of wisdom in his face, shows his wisdom by not entering into tournaments or being seen sparring young folks and getting his rear end handed to him.
I am sure there is some truth to what is said in those paragraphs. There is some slowing down and loss of strength after a certain peak age. However, I think that the article and the concept of the aging karateka deserves a little nuancing.
There are a few assuptions made that merit some thought...
1. That the value of the aging "master" decreases because he can no longer win fights at tournaments.
2. That the idea of a physical peak is necessarily as important to the average karateka as it is to an elite athlete.
3. That the idea of working "smarter" can be discounted.
So here are my thoughts...
1. At least in Uechi, from what I understand, the rank of Master is that of a valuable teacher. I don't think it is fair to say that organisations hand out rank to older practitioners just to thank them for their service. I think they become more and more valuable as they learn through their teaching and gain deeper understanding into how to pass their skill on. This doesn't happen "just because" you get older, but it takes time to gain that insight, so many great teachers/coaches are older.
Also on the same point, I think that you have to differentiate between tournament sparring and fighting. Toughing out any number of rounds through the unfolding of a tournament is much different than a fight over in 10-20 seconds. So that run down old guy that got beat in the tournament might kick the same guy's a$$ if jumped in the parking lot...?
2. This idea of a physical peak is certainly important in elite athletes. Look at Andre Agassi. He really is not THAT old, but everyone thinks his recent performance is a miracle. However, we are talking about the top 1% of the tennis world here, and how much difference in performance is really seperating the 20 something year old players from Agassi? Not much when you think about it!!
And the way modern medicine, nutrition, sports science, etc are today, the physical peak does not necessarily have to drop by much for quite some time. Sure, when you are at the very top of your sport, when you need to be at 100% of your potential, age is going to matter. But for us regular folk, we are SO far from our physical potential that we can't use age as the excuse. Heck, I take way better care of myself now than I did when I was 25. And I can say quite objectively that I am stronger, faster and more agile than I was then.
Granted, I am far from, and never expect to reach, my potential in Uechi either. So I can see the author's point about physical potential when related to the very best. A master like Kiyohide Shinjo probably does feel the physical prowess recede as he gets older, but only because he is one of the 1% who actually reached his physical potential, like Andre Agassi.
3. And then there is that "myth" that says that as you get older you get "smarter." This idea gets discounted to some extent in the article, but I think it is true in many ways, especially for something like MA that have a heavy reliance on tactics and strategy.
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who plays tennis. He is a skilled player who has been at it for quite a while. He regularly plays this other guy at his club who is pushing 70. He ain't fast and he ain't that strong, but my friend just can't beat him. Sure, he wins a point here and there, but the old guy justs reads the game so much better than him, thus using better tactics and strategy.
Well, this whole thing is getting long, but I'll finish with two reflections...
First: A few years ago Jim Maloney grabbed me and put me into one of those pressure point locks. He sure as heck did not seem old or slow!!!
Second: Most of us can rest assured that we are nowhere close to peaking out physically. We still have lots of room to improve even as we age, so we shouldn't worry about it...